The 2021 City Council election political season is already upon us. Exhibit one: a Fake News Map (the one on the left) posted by a member of the ABC Political PAC. As the map on the right shows: there are PLENTY of apartments throughout Cambridge, alas far too many now vacant due to COVID, and many are likely to remain so since more and more people will be working from home even after COVID loses momentum.
Cambridge Day has published as an Op Ed Open Letter to City Council on the question of conservation district impacts on property value and rental price increases. In this analysis not only is Cambridge specific data explored (a comparison of conservation district and non-conservation district price increases since 2015) but so too are a range of U.S. studies as well as a nationwide U.K. study.
This "Open Letter" was written in response a Cambridge City Council Policy Order coming up for a vote that contends that historic preservation (Conservation Districts) increase rents and should not be allowed. This order is based largely on a Sept. 10 Cambridge Chronicle op-ed, itself a reprise of a Feb. 27 blog post by a local political activist, claiming “Conservation Districts Make Housing Less Affordable.”
The longer "Open Letter" study is here: op_ed_conservation_districts_10.16.20-final.a__.pdf
This study analyzes both Cambridge property value and rent increases between 2015 and today and was able to show that Neighborhood Conservation Districts (NCD) have LOWER rents and property value increases than those areas of the city that lie outside Conservation Districts (nearly 10% lower indeed). In this letter/study the larger national and UK literature delineated by a local pro-development blogger is based on a deeply flawed analysis of the cited literature. The issue here is coming to a head with a push against historic preservation in Cambridge in an effort to enable developers to build what they want. Cambridge is one of the earliest cities in the country (1630) and one of the top five most dense cities in the U.S. with a population over 100K, we have lost 18% of our tree canopy in the last 10 years and the city is adding nearly 30% more residents. Where will they go? Allowing developers to tear down historic buildings in East Cambridge, (a one-time working-class neighborhood (where many of our ethnic emigres once lived) is not only bad civic policy but also is environmentally bad because historic preservation and sustainability are natural partners. Preservation and reuse of historic buildings reduces resource and material consumption, puts less waste in landfills, and consumes less energy than demolishing buildings and constructing new ones.
Sadly, with so much industry moving in with an array of employees with salaries far higher than long-time residents, they are forcing others out (including our one time large African American population). Basically, very few can afford to live here anymore. But the answer is NOT build more and more housing (supply and demand does not work in a place like Cambridge with two big universities) and destroying our rich heritage of historic architecture to build massive housing developments everywhere will destroy the very reason many people want to move here - to say nothing of our need to preserve this history for the next generation.
Since this "Open Letter" appeared, Mr. Crowe has responded with another blog at lorencrowe.com
Here too, each of the cases he cites again are incorrect to use in addressing the East Cambridge NCD situation
Here is the key issue: historic districts have prior historic (and other value) which is in large measure why they are approved to become historic districts, so the fact that property values in HISTORIC Districts may be higher is based on their prior value and not a priori necessarily on new value.
Mr. Crowe and others are encouraged to reread the CHC guidelines for historic and conservation districts here. They are also encouraged to relook at the actual analysis of Cambridge property value and rental increases in conservation districts vs non conservation districts – as delineated in my study.
Since this blog, Dan Eisner has responded as well on the East Cambridge Planning Team list serve arguing that the “Open Letter” UK study conclusions were based on an incomplete citation. However, the sentence immediately following the one Eisner cited on p.69 reads as follows: “…in the short-run, designation has a neutral effect on property price….It is, however, difficult to separate the determinants of the long run appreciation trend within conservation areas… without an analysis of quantity adjustments, which are outside the scope of this report. We note that from the results presented it is not possible to conclude on the (non-)existence of demand or supply driven price spillover effects of conservation areas to the wider housing market area."
Finally it is not correct that a Neighborhood Conservation District would put upward pressure on this neighborhood’s prices; based on all the other studies of conservation districts, it would do the reverse. You and others have yet to provide any contradictory evidence of this.
Suzanne Preston Blier
In the Cambridge’s proposed Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO) the increased height and Floor Area Ratio (FAR) called for will impact neighborhoods in strikingly different ways. For example, up to 94% of buildings in zip code 02138 are two to five times smaller than the proposed 2.0 FAR and 1 to 3 stories shorter than the proposed height limit.[i] This will ultimately make such properties, previously considered as homes for working class and middle-income families, attractive development targets. The scale of buildings can be categorized into five different groups based on FAR and lot coverage. The below graphic succinctly illustrates the scale of each level of development intensity, as well as the potential negative impacts of unrestrained development “as of right” in every neighborhood, without normal rights of legal appeal
Map Below: Targeted sites in each zip code for 40 unit, 4 story tall AHO projects comprise very property over 10,000 SF. Properties between 5,000 SF and 9.99 K SF could be combined or used as is for 4 story projects with fewer units. FAR of 2.0 Impacts: Using Cambridge examples from the 02138zip code, the largest of Cambridge’s five zip codes with 3318 structures, reveals how changes to FAR limits can impact neighborhood density dramatically.
The map above shows the likely target area for larger Affordable Housing Projects (40 unit, 4 story structures). Here is a clickable map, you can see the buildings areas when you zoom in:
The light lavender background is the 02138 zip code where most of these large developments are slotted to occur also will be impacted far more because currently these properties have far LOWER FAR (density, Floor Area Ratio) then elsewhere in the city and a building with a 2.0 will represent a massive density and scale change here. See the graph below for the large differential impacts of a 2.0 FAR on the cities key zip codes. The lower the graph differential the more naturally a 2.0 FAR would fit in.
An FAR of 2.0 is universally reserved for large urban densities, not for other types of residential areas as the comparison below indicates.
Note that the planned Paris apartment community at the lower left has an FAR of 1.5 which is considered maximum for this kind of dwelling in most settings. AnFAR of 2.0 worldwide is intended for FAR MORE dense urban areas or structures – student dorms, large and tall apartment complexes, and office buildings. Key parts of residential Cambridge do not meet the criteria for 2.0 FAR found in other places like New York city, Mumbai, or outlying areas of Paris.
Group 1 (above): 0.20 to 0.49 FAR (410 structures) = 12% of buildings in 02138. These are primarily small 1 and 2 story structures on streets where the proposed 2.0 FAR for affordable housing up-zoning can be 4 to 10 times larger than the massing of current structures, with up to 40 new units replacing existing smaller homes.